Larry Levis died twenty years ago this May, and after his brilliant, posthumously published Elegy, I expected there would be no more Levis to look forward to. Until I chanced upon this new book, beautifully edited, the way only a friend of Levis’s and fellow poet could, by David St. John: THE DARKENING TRAPEZE: LAST POEMS (Graywolf, 2016).Opening the book up to read, first I read St. John’s moving “Afterword.” where I finally understood Levis is a brother ekphrasist: that is, “that he was profoundly influenced by twentieth-century painting and photography and by world cinema as well.”
This explains the choice of the cover, a triptych by Francis Bacon.
Reading, or beginning to read, the poems, I am struck over and over again by how delicately Levis uses a longish line, a meditative line, often in couplets interspersed with single-line stanzas, always feels to me like the ribs of his soul with the wind blowing through them:
He is the singing in the rocks and the no one there. (“A Singing in the Rocks”)
Reading these poems I am aware instantly of the experience of reading as saudade: that exquisite feeling of sadness and painful longing that is also pleasurable. Like looking at a Francis Bacon painting.
Reading Levis, I am reminded of his prescient timelessness in these lines from “Carte de L’Assassin à M. André Breton”:
Eh bien, at my age it’s going to be more difficult To adapt to what comes after Paris, since What comes after it is nothing, & is this . . .
Yes, it is a different “after Paris” we are experiencing post-Hebdo, post-Bataclan. And yet . . .
I haven’t even read through half of the book, I don’t want to, I never want to read my last Levis poem. Of course, I can go back to his other books and reread his work, but there is something about this late work and the work in Elegy, both published after his death, that rises to a pitch of poignancy that makes reading him close to a religious experience for me. How was he able to embody the flare of pain without becoming self-indulgent—to, “flame and then darken,” as St. John describes the movement in these final poems?
In the same poem “The Singing in the Rocks” where the soul is voiced and haunting, there is also the speaker’s relationship to a woman starting to die from lymphoma who says “Fuck you” and walks back to the car. The real, the surreal. The dream of this life like no other.